Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 31.05.2006:
By Rana Anani
At the corner of Nablus Road and the Sultan Suleiman Boulevard, across from Damascus Gate, stands the most famous newspaper kiosk in Jerusalem.
For over 50 years, Jerusalemites have been accustomed to the sight of Um’eir Da’na (Abu Salaam) selling papers to passersby. Sixty-six-year-old Abu Salaam has been selling newspapers since the age of seven. Born to a poor family in the Old City, he began his career when his three brothers and father were arrested in 1936 by the British authorities and the family found itself without a provider.
Out and about looking for work, Abu Salaam ran into local distributor, Yacoub Julani, just when he was handing out batches of papers to a group of boys. Abu Salaam applied for a job on the spot and was given his first stack of papers to sell.
Although his desire to study was very strong, Abu Salaam never managed to go to school. Instead, he taught himself to read and write. He would ask his customers about the Arabic alphabet and draw the letters. Combining them in his leisure time, he taught himself to recognize words, spell them correctly and finally to use them. Learning the language took him many years, but as soon as he had a command of Arabic, he applied to be a distributor for an Egyptian newspaper, writing the letter himself. Over the years, Abu Salaam used the same approach to teach himself English, French, Italian and Hebrew.
Thanks to his work as a newspaper distributor, Abu Salaam has met many Arab intellectuals. In his youth, this meant being exposed to new and innovative ideas in politics. He became a member of the Communist party. Eventually, he even began writing political articles and short fiction pieces, which he published in the newspaper Filistin during the British Mandate period.
Following the War of 1948, Abu Salaam joined the Jordanian army, but because of his political activities, he was dismissed, so he returned to selling newspapers. In 1956 he was arrested and exiled to the notorious Jafer Prison in the Jordanian desert where he spent six months.
Abu Salaam married in 1956 and is the father of four sons and a daughter. He is proud to have given them the education he missed out on during his younger days. Three of them are physicians, and the fourth is a dentist. They never hesitate to stand in for him at the newsstand whenever he has business elsewhere.
Local and international press
Over the years Abu Salaam has become a distributor not only for the local press, but also for the international press. The first newspapers he sold were A-Difa’, Filistin, and Sirat Al- Mustaqueem, three papers that were well known during the British Mandate period. He also sold the very first copy of the Communist paper Al-Ittihad in 1946.
During the British Mandate period, few people read newspapers, says Abu Salaam. In Jordanian times, from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, the number of readers rose noticeably. He notes, however, that following the Israeli occupation in 1967, the number dwindled again because of psychological and political circumstances and the increased popularity of television and videocassettes.
Selling papers at that particular corner can be a precarious way to earn a living. Abu Salaam is exposed to constant danger because it is a location where many incidents occur, he says. “I see many unsettling things: handcuffed people being beaten by the police, drug users distributing drugs openly.”
At times there are incidents of a political nature in which the police attack the crowd, he says, and start firing. “Regardless of the circumstances, I never allow myself to close down. The papers are always on display, even when I have to seek shelter in the building nearby.”
Abu Salaam answers questions posed by hundreds of people every day. In fact neighbors say if you wish to know what is going on in town, ask Abu Salaam. Often he directs tourists to the sites they are seeking. While others turn to him for advice on reading material, Lord Caradon of the United Nations and the first Israeli Ambassador to Egypt, Moshe Sasoon were among customers who asked him to provide them with special publications unavailable elsewhere. Lord Caradon, the previous British representative to the United Nations was according to Abu Salaam a man with whom he had many political discussions, particularly concerning UN Resolution 242. Abu Salaam still remembers remonstrating with him for dropping the definite article ‘the’ from the resolution. Abu Salaam told his famous client that he was wrong to describe the occupied territories as ‘occupied territories’ in the UN resolution. Lord Caradon replied to him that the resolution was not written in bad faith. Abu Salaam insisted that the formulation was absolutely wrong since the expression is confusing, and as written, has far-reaching, negative consequences for the Arabs, especially the Palestinians.
The Jerusalem Times
24 March 1995
31 March 1995
P.S. Abu Salam is still selling newspapers at the same place (2006).